Will Chaco fall victim to Mancos play?

By Norma McCallan, Northern New Mexico co-chair

In a remote area of the southeastern San Juan Basin, down a long, washboard dirt road, lies Chaco Culture National Historical Park. Designated as a World Heritage Site in 1987, its magnificent ancient ruins face a new threat from proposed federal gas and oil leases north and east of the park, totaling 18,500 acres.

The San Juan Basin is the second-largest gas field in the country. Adding to the already dominant role of gas and oil in the Four Corners area is the recent discovery of Mancos-Gallup Shale formations 5,000 feet underground, which require hydraulic fracturing, or fracking. Machines running 24/7, noise and light pollution, more roads opening up opportunities for blowing dust and open pits with toxic wastewater next to a World Heritage Site?

Chaco Canyon contains spectacular ruins that were home to ancestral Puebloans who lived there between 850 and 1250 A.D. The Navajo continue to maintain sacred sites in the area. “It has a very significant meaning to a lot of the traditional stories, traditional religion,” noted Samuel Sage, a Navajo leader in the Counselor Chapter who attended our program at San Juan College on June 7.

The BLM Farmington District finds itself in somewhat of a bind. The prior director, in the 2003 Resource Management Plan, designated the area of the proposed leases “suitable for drilling,” and in 2005, President Bush’s Energy Policy Act made the Farmington Feld Office a pilot to expedite gas development and use fast-track permitting. Lease sales near Chaco have already been delayed a number of times, and the BLM said it is concerned that potential bidding companies may initiate lawsuits.

San Juan Citizens Alliance and Western Resource Advocates appealed the growing impacts of air pollution and degradation of public lands, but a district court upheld the BLM’s Resource Management Plan in 2008. Settlement discussions from an appeal resulted in a plan requiring the BLM to address longstanding resource issues and confirmed that public involvement is a legitimate requirement.

The BLM is planning to initiate an RMP amendment to deal with unresolved oil and gas issues, including the leases around Chaco. In the fall, they expect to solicit public comments for the scoping phase of an Environmental Impact Statement. Meanwhile, the BLM and other concerned organizations are discussing buffer zones around Chaco as well as the key concept of night skies and viewsheds.

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